February 09, 2007

Florida Supreme Court Rejects DNA Innocence Claim

In a recent sharply divided opinion by the Florida Supreme Court death row inmate Paul Hildwin was denied relief even though newly discovered DNA evidence now proves that contrary to the state’s claims, he did not rape and kill a 42 year old woman over twenty years ago. See, Hildwin v. State (2006).

At trial the state told the jury that Hildwin has brutally killed Vronzette Cox after raping her, then stole her personal belongings. The main evidence against Hillwin was a pair of semen – encrusted pants, which the state has their own expert witness testified was of a blood type consistent with that of Hildwin. The state’s motive was that Hildwin raped Ms. Cox as she desperately fought for her life, then he beat and strangled her to death before discarding the body in the woods where she was found. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime.

When Hildwin stood trial in the mid 1080’s DNA testing was not available. Hillwin has maintained his innocence of this crime even after almost twenty years on Florida’s death row. For many years Hildwin tried to compel DNA testing of the physical evidence, but it wasn’t until Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project got involved that it appeared that justice would finally be done. The forensic evidence was finally tested and then conclusively proved that the semen the state convinced the jury came from Hildwin simply did not.

With a team of lawyers arguing his case, this newly discovered evidence was formally presented to the Florida Courts. However, although the state made a point of convincing the jury this semen came exclusively from Hildwin at trial, now the state flip–flopped, arguing that the DNA results conclusively showing that the semen could not have come from Hildwin proves nothing – that at best it only proves that he didn’t rape Ms. Cox, but the state argued that this wasn’t prosecuted as a “rape” case – it was only prosecuted as a murder case and since technically Hildwin failed to present any new evidence that he didn’t commit the murder, he was not legally entitled to relief.

By a narrow margin of a 4 to 3 vote in a strongly divided opinion, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with the state’s attorney and denied relief. The three member dissenting opinion, which included Justice Peggy Quince – herself a former deputy assistant attorney general specializing in capital appeals – began by stating, “Justice demands a new trial for Hildwin, one free of the tainted evidence used to convict him of first degree murder, which sentenced him to death.” In their well written dissent the Justices pointed out that Hillwin compelling DNA evidence is comparable to that recently addressed in House v. Bell, 126 S. Ct. 2064 (2006) by the U.S. Supreme Court, in which they ruled in favor of the condemned prisoner. Pointing out that at the very least this semen evidence used to convict Hildwin misled the jury as it now shows it did not come from Hildwin and “yielded a conviction that we can no longer confidently rely upon.”

One would think that when DNA evidence now conclusively establishes that the arguments made by the state to convict and condemn Hildwin were wrong – that the only physical evidence allegedly “proving” Hillwin committed this brutal murder now shows it had to be someone else – that the courts would want to correct this obvious injustice. But once again logic and reason fail to win the day and yet another miscarriage of justice continues to be perpetuated by the State of Florida. See, Southern Injustice: Condemning An Innocent Man.

To compound this tragedy of “justice” even further, as Paul Hildwin continues to fight for “justice” in the courts, he must also battle yet another beast – Hillwin has been fighting cancer now for several years. Will justice prevail in time – or will Hildwin become yet another victim of injustice like Frank Lee Smith who was finally exonerated by DNA evidence after 16 years on Florida’s death row – but tragically died of cancer before the evidence finally exonerated him? See, Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied.

With cases like that of Paul Hildwin can any reasonable person have confidence in our courts? With evidence now conclusively proving the state’s theory was wrong, how can any person of conscience still vote to kill this man?

Once again, especially in a state that has a record number of wrongful convictions in capital cases, we must ask ourselves if this is really about justice – or is it just a contemporary twist on the infamous Southern tradition of bigotry and injustice? See, Exposing the New face of Bigotry & Injustice in the South